Documents of Life Revisited
Our world is full of human documents; we send e-mails, write letters and book reviews, and take photos. These structure our worlds and help us make sense of the world around us. Documents of Life Revisited (2013), edited by Liz Stanley, explores the theory and practice of documents of life research, including what ‘documents of life’ are and how they fit within the framework of narrative and biographical inquiry. It builds on the work of Ken Plummer (1983, 2001), whose work inspired new attention to the interpretive-story telling of lives, ¬¬extending many of Plummer’s original ideas and concerns as well as incorporating a range of new thinking. Plummer’s ideas are revisited through explorations of the fourteen contributors’ research practices, with themes ranging widely from working class autobiographies, diary writing by academics, holocaust survivors talking about their lives, to media representations of a serial killer and online photographs of the dead.
Structured into four parts, part one of Stanley’s book opens with a fascinating exploration of what it means to tell a lie about a life; a beautifully written piece reflecting on the author and a respondent’s attempts to hide their lower class backgrounds, and in their own way, write their own life stories. This part more generally explores the various ways in which postmodernism, post-structuralism and post-humanism have reconceptualised what documents of life might consist of. Part two moves on to discuss the importance of context, showing how stories are engendered and shaped by time and place, and how the actively interpreting human subject’s understandings and viewpoints change over time.
Part three focuses on epistemological questions including what counts and who decides what counts as knowledge, and how these epistemological disputes are handled. This chapter raises a number of ontological questions as well, including questions regarding the boundaries between life and death, and how the role of the researcher should be represented in research. Part four concludes the book with a manifesto by Ken Plummer, focusing on stories and story-telling, emphasising that stories are a part of what makes us fully human. In addition, Plummer describes how he sees the connections between stories, narrative and biographical sociology and documents of life being developed.
While Liz Stanley has skilfully pulled together a timely glimpse into biographical and narrative research, the book could have included a more solid conclusion of what critical humanism is, how she sees the future of ‘documents of life’ research, and what this means for biographical and narrative research. In addition, the penultimate chapter by Mona Livholts slips too easily away from narrative research towards what can best be described as creative writing, which tends to obfuscate the overall message of the book. Nonetheless, Documents of Life Revisited is a fascinating exploration of narrative and biographical methodologies and would be of interest to anyone in the social sciences and humanities, and especially to those interested in sociology, social anthropology, geography, cultural studies, literary studies and social policy.
University of Edinburgh
ReferencesPlummer, K. 1983. Documents of Life: An Introduction to the Problems and Literature of a Humanistic Method. Allen & Unwin: London.
Plummer, K. 2001. Documents of Life-2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism. Sage: London.